Why Indian Navy needs fewer INS Kochis
It needs larger numbers of patrol vessels and light frigates, not expensive destroyers.
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The guided missile destroyer INS Kochi that joined the Indian Navy in Mumbai on September 30 is a fearsome combatant. This 7400-tonne warship bristles with supersonic cruise missiles, two multi-role helicopters, long range anti-aircraft missiles, guns and torpedoes. This is the reason every Admiral would want to have several such powerful floating arsenals in his fleet. The Indian Navy sees itself fielding a force of 150 warships by 2027. A bulk of these warships will be frigates and destroyers like the INS Kochi capable of neutralising enemy aircrafts, warships, submarines and attacking targets on land and escorting merchant vessels transiting near enemy waters. However, the last major naval conflict was over three decades ago, in the Falklands.
Peacetime mission for the Indian naval fleet includes overseas diplomatic flag-flying missions: in the past year, the Navy has sent its warships to 40 countries across the globe; has been patrolling the Indian coastline to prevent 26/11-type terror attacks, providing humanitarian assistance missions like the rescue of over 4,000 Indian nationals stranded in Yemen and, since 2008, the deployment of one warship in the Gulf of Aden to counter Somali pirates.
There are time and cost constraints in achieving a fleet size the Navy wants. Each Kolkata/Kochi class destroyer costs over Rs 4,000 crore to build. The Navy can afford only a limited number of such warships. Expensive combat platforms will always be subject to the vagaries of budget cuts. This year, the NDA downsized the IAF’s (Indian AirForce) ginormous $20 billion proposal to buy 126 twin-engined Rafale fighter jets, to a modest buy of just 36 aircrafts for $4 billion. There is another instructive lesson in the IAF’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender that the Rafale won. The MMRCA project began in 1999 as a modest buy of 126 single-engined Mirage 2000 aircrafts.
The Navy currently has five Project 15 "city class" destroyers which it has been inducting rather slowly since 1997. Current plans call for adding ten more such expensive destroyers, costing upwards of $1 billion, by 2027 or at an ambitious rate of one warship a year.
It is unlikely the Mumbai-based public sector shipyard Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) can handle this rate of construction. The MDL takes upwards of five years to build a destroyer like the INS Kochi because of inadequate investment in modern ship construction technology. That’s not good news for the Navy which is struggling to replace its ageing warships.
There is a far more cost-effective option within the Navy: the Naval Offshore Patrol Vessel (NOPV) or the INS Saryu class of vessels, four of which are in service. These 2,300-tonne warships are armed with 76 mm main guns, two 30 mm cannons, a helicopter and carry marine commandos. Its economical diesel engines boast of an impressive range of 6,000 nautical miles. Compared to the city class destroyers, the NOPVs are dirt cheap. For the price of one Kochi destroyer, the Navy can buy nine NOPVs. It takes just 36 months to build one such vessel which can perform all the Navy’s peacetime constabulary and flag-showing roles. They can also be used for escort duties in wartime by adding modular plug and play weapon packages — containerised missiles and towed array sonars — which can dramatically increase their combat profile. NOPVs will allow the Navy to field dozens of such inexpensive warships in quantities which will give them a quality of their own.
The trouble is, the Navy is not buying enough NOPVs. It plans to field only nine vessels as opposed to over 20 pricey frigates and destroyers.
This is possibly because, as Robert Kaplan notes in his book Monsoon, the Indian Navy, like the Chinese Navy, is preparing to fight titanic doomsday sea battles which are increasingly unlikely to happen.